Getai veteran Ah Nan has died, apparently from a heart attack

Getai performer and part-time actor John Cheng, better known as Ah Nan, died of an apparent heart attack last night.

The 52-year-old collapsed backstage following a performance in a nightclub in Parklane Mall, according to his wife. She spoke to the organisers of a Chinese New Year concert he was scheduled to perform at on Feb 12.

Before joining show business in 1987, Cheng used to be part of a gang, had gambling problems and was a loanshark runner. He then started working the getai circuit, and was eventually given supporting actor roles in films such as Money No Enough (1997), I Not Stupid (2002) and Where Got Ghost? (2009).

He was arrested by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in 2006 for drug-taking, and was sentenced to a 12-month term at a drug rehabilitation centre.

In 2010, during a press conference film-maker Jack Neo held to explain an extramarital affair, he openly shouted at journalists to leave Neo alone.

Cheng is survived by a wife and four daughters.

Fellow veteran getai performer Wang Lei, 52, spoke with a strained voice when contacted by The Straits Times.

Speaking slowly, he says in Mandarin: "We had worked together since the early 1990s, going through both good times and bad.

"He looked rather fierce with the tattoos and his facial expressions, but those who know him will know what a huge heart he had."

Wang lets on that every time they got together for a drink at a coffee shop, Cheng would always be looking out for "the aunties and uncles" working there.

"He had an immense amount of respect for older people. Whenever older aunties came by to wipe the table, he would give a little bit of money to them. I saw this at least 100 times over the years. He was a very kindhearted man."

Actor and film-maker Neo invited Cheng to join his media company J Team in 1988, and eventually gave him a number of supporting roles in his films, including the part of a loan shark in Money No Enough (1988) and a police officer in I Not Stupid (2002).

Film-maker Boris Boo, who had worked with Cheng on J Team productions for "the past 10 years", says that the late performer was "one of the most professional" and "friendly" people that he had ever collaborated with.

Boo most recently directed him in The Ghosts Must Be Crazy, where Cheng played a guy who encounters supernatural elements during an annual army training session.

Boo says: "He might have looked quite fierce, but he was actually one of the nicest guys you'd ever work with. He never, ever lost his temper on set, no matter how many times we had to do the same take.

"There was once where we did more than 80 takes of the same scene, and he was still laughing with co-star Wang Lei."

He adds that Cheng was "truly a natural-born comedian".

"I don't think there are many real comedians in Singapore. There are many actors who can act funny, but they are not necessarily comedians. Ah Nan was a natural comedian, and there was no such thing as 'time off' for him when he's telling us jokes.

"When we were sitting on long bus journeys together to go to another film location, he would crack jokes non-stop. It was never boring when he was around."